Formed in 2003 after coming up with a name “that we didn’t hate,” this genre-busting Minnesota band takes its need for speed on the road again
If there were a chance in Hades that Trampled by Turtles might be slowing down heading into their third decade as a band built for speed, they removed all doubts in one helluva return to Red Rocks on July 14, 2022.
Making their eighth appearance at the majestic mountain setting west of Denver since August 2014 — when they first headlined at the sold-out venue on a bill including Devil Makes Three and Deer Tick — these Minnesota string swingers seemed as confidently comfortable as ever.
“This place never gets any less amazing, I tell you what. You look beautiful,” Trampled by Turtles frontman, acoustic guitarist and lead singer Dave Simonett told their latest Red Rocks audience. The compliment was delivered after opening with “The Middle” and “Walt Whitman,” two precious gems during a show that drew selectively from a vast songbook dating to 2004 debut album Songs from a Ghost Town.
Their 20-tune collection (along with three encore numbers) satisfied a throng that hit the amphitheatre’s 9,500 capacity again, filled primarily by general admission ticket holders — many dancing or standing — who were as intriguing as the setlist itself. A rock chick with purple and pink hair sat alongside millennial parents holding tiny tots adorned in cute dresses and mammoth noise-canceling headphones. An old graybeard goat in a Deadwood, South Dakota T-shirt was just as entertained as the young woman who delivered a simple message on the front of her green cotton top: “I Like Turtles.”
South Carolina-born roots rocker Ruston Kelly, perhaps known more for his 2017 marriage to country darling Kacey Musgraves that lasted less than three years, began the proceedings at 7 o’clock sharp in his Red Rocks premiere. In an extended one-hour set, he was backed by five musicians — his dad Tim “T.K.” Kelly (pedal steel), Juan Solorzano (electric guitar), Bryan Dawley (guitar and keys) John Chong (drums) and Calvin Knowles (bass). The handsome Kelly seemed amazed by the splendor of Red Rocks, but rocked hard on acoustic guitar and harmonica, while also speaking softly, and frankly.
“I went through a lot of periods in my life of not being myself,” he said, grateful for the extra time on stage since his set the previous night in the Salt Lake City area was cut woefully short by a lightning storm. “My choice was like a shit ton of drugs [overdosing in December 2015]. And I’ve been clean for two years, which is going great. Not to make it about me or anything. I wasn’t gonna play this song, but I was like kind of feeling it today.”
Kelly wisely chose to perform “Brave,” with his soulfully somber voice reflecting, “I’ve already lost some years / To addiction and the fear / I was worthless.” The cut from 2020’s Shape & Destroy, his sophomore album that followed 2018’s Dying Star, ended on a high note, though, interjected with a couple of lovely verses from “Over the Rainbow.”
The bright night continued as only a quick drizzle between sets temporarily dampened the mood before Trampled by Turtles hit the stage at 8:45, a stiff wind seeming to appear on cue to help the fog machines do their job.
In a straight line beginning at stage right were Erik Berry (mandolin) followed by Ryan Young (fiddle), Dave Carroll (banjo), Simonett, Tim Saxhaug (bass) and Eamonn McLain (cello). Also a Minnesota native, McLain was the final piece of the puzzle (added in 2014) who turned the fast-and-furious five into an even more striking sextet with a convincing convergence of sounds. (Drums? They don’t need no stinkin’ drums!) Businesslike as usual, each player remained in position near his mic the entire time. No backstage breaks, no intermissions, just full-time professionalism with brief delays for tuning.
Simonett, the band’s primary songwriter, is clearly the quiet leader with his world-weary voice, melancholic harmonica and sad songs that convey tales of heartache, struggle and loneliness. Life for him began in Germany, where his U.S. Army father was stationed at Landstuhl. After moving to Mankato, Minnesota, living in Duluth and relocating to Minneapolis for his 2005 marriage, he and his wife Annie had two children before they divorced in 2016. Despite experiencing that loss, the professional relationship with his bandmates, going on 20 years, continues successfully, perhaps strengthened by their reciprocal respect on stage and in the studio. Each member earns a spot in the spotlight.
These six music men joined in the steady and serene harmonies on songs like “The Middle” (from 2018’s Life Is Good on the Open Road) and Songs from a Ghost Town’s “Ain’t No Use in Tryin’” while Young isn’t second fiddle to anyone instrumentally. Just watching him go high or low to play his heart out is exhausting, whether he’s tippy-toeing or hunching over to squeeze all he can from each and every note.
His fiddling frenzy pushed the band’s manic energy on numbers like “Annihilate” (off Life Is Good on the Open Road), and two from 2008’s Duluth — “Darkness and the Light” (opening line: “Colorado was so nice”) and “White Noise.” Those were capped by what may be TBT’s signature song, “Wait So Long,” from their groundbreaking 2010 album Palomino.
McLain’s cello brought a symphonic touch to the live-wire act (their extended prelude to “Midnight on the Interstate” — from 2012’s Stars and Satellites — sounded like an orchestra warming up). He also displayed bursts of gothic glory on “Burn for Free” (2005’s Blue Sky and the Devil).
Other nice surprises were Saxhaug’s sweet lead vocals on Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” and his all-Americana take on “Nothing Compares 2 U.” His delectable delivery on the Prince-written song that made Sinéad O’Connor famous guided the show in a gratifyingly different emotional direction to begin a 12-minute encore.
Berry’s mandolin and Carroll’s banjo also were featured prominently on country-comforting tunes like “Whiskey” (Ghost Town again) and the Grateful Dead cover “Brown-Eyed Women,” which included a special guest vocalist — Simonett’s 9-year-old stepdaughter Eden, who recently joined the family via his second marriage.
With a smile as expansive as the Rocky Mountains, Eden received some of the loudest cheers and applause of the night — along with a big bear hug from her stepdad — after she cheerfully chimed in for the choruses.
Simonett’s first child, Lucy, was only 4 months old when I interviewed him in June 2011 as part of a series previewing the 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival that included Trampled by Turtles’ debut at the prestigious southwest Colorado event.
That also was my first time to cover TBT and the TBF, with the headline for the Day 2 review reading “Trampled by Turtles Kick Some Serious Bluegrass at Telluride.” Of course, Palomino songs they still play today like “Wait So Long” were bona fide crowd-pleasers during that explosive opening on a Friday afternoon in mid-June. Rowdies just behind the media/VIP pit were on their feet, kicking up a human dust storm while urging the band to “play faster” throughout their 75-minute set. How do you play faster than the speed of sound?
They were building momentum off the success of Palomino, the group’s fifth studio album but the first to hit No. 1 on Billboard’s bluegrass chart. Since Telluride isn’t just for traditional bluegrass fans, it seemed fitting that a nontraditional bluegrass — better yet, fastgrass — outfit like Trampled by Turtles would finally play there, followed by return visits in 2013 and 2015.
Not wanting his bands (he’s released two albums with side project Dead Man Winter) to be defined by any specific genre, Simonett managed to let elements of folk, rock and even punk seep into an acoustic ethos nurtured by the tunes of Dylan and Townes Van Zandt. Telling me in 2011 that “everybody on my mom’s side of the family plays something,” he was a child who took piano lessons from his grandmother before graduating to play rock and punk songs. From performing with Simple Junction as a teenager, that string thing took hold after a 23-year-old Simonett joined forces first with Berry, then Carroll, then Young and Saxhaug.
There’s no great backstory behind the birth of the band’s name, and he credited Berry for coming up with one “that we didn’t hate. … You think Trampled by Turtles is bad,” Simonett recalled. “ … We came up with some really, really terrible stuff.” They finally settled on a colorful identity that has stuck ever since it required something/anything to get booked for their first two shows upon officially proclaiming themselves a band in 2003.
Eight years later, the festival circuit included stops at Coachella, the Newport Folk Festival … and Telluride, where he told the adoring crowd, “I think this is the most beautiful view I’ve ever had from a stage … and the mountains aren’t bad either.”
Now that Simonett is in his early 40s, Red Rocks appears to have taken over as the Colorado hot spot for this band of brothers in arms. After dedicating “Bloodshot Eyes” (from Palomino) to Wasserman Music booking agent Josh Knight, who had lost his luggage earlier that day, Simonett said Red Rocks is “really the weirdest, coolest venue in the world.”
The set’s second half featured three more Palomino songs — “Victory,” “Help You” and “Wait So Long,” the raging pre-encore closer with an aura of what a hoedown on steroids must feel like.
VIDEO: Trampled By Turtles “Burlesque Desert”
Though six of their eight previous studio albums were represented during the 100-minute show, Trampled by Turtles only gave the audience a sleek sneak peek into what’s ahead when they release the Jeff Tweedy-produced, 11-track Alpenglow on October 28. Simonett wrote all but Tweedy’s “A Lifetime to Find” for the record, which, after repeated listens, seems to take a subtler, deeper approach compared to some of Trampled’s past works. Just call it a slow burn that’s still able to warm the soul. Maturity can coincide with beauty and grace, and the Red Rocks audience was treated to both on a pair of Alpenglow cuts. “It’s So Hard to Hold On” and “Burlesque Desert Window” are stunning, especially the latter with its infectious singalong vibe sure to leave top dogs everywhere howling with delight.
Now that this crop of dates is winding up with two July festivals and an August 5 show in Wisconsin, Trampled by Turtles are undoubtedly saving most of the others for the busy festival circuit in August and September, then their fall/winter headlining tour starting in November.
After all, even these still-spry guys occasionally need to go back into their shells to restore some of those Turtle powers.
VIDEO: Trampled By Turtles “It’s So Hard To Hold On”
Trampled by Turtles at Red Rocks: July 14, 2022
Set list songs (Year of album release)
- The Middle (2018’s Life Is Good on the Open Road)
- Walt Whitman (2012’s Stars and Satellites)
- Darkness and the Light (2008’s Duluth)
- We All Get Lonely (2018’s Life Is Good on the Open Road)
- Whiskey (2004’s Songs from a Ghost Town)
- Ain’t No Use in Tryin’ (2004’s Songs from a Ghost Town)
- Annihilate (2018’s Life Is Good on the Open Road)
- Don’t Look Down (2012’s Stars and Satellites)
- White Noise (2008’s Duluth)
- Brown-Eyed Women (Grateful Dead cover)
- Bloodshot Eyes (2010’s Palomino)
- Victory (2010’s Palomino)
- Help You (2010’s Palomino)
- It’s So Hard to Hold On (October 2022’s Alpenglow)
- Burlesque Desert Window (October 2022’s Alpenglow)
- Burn for Free (2005’s Blue Sky and the Devil)
- Shelter from the Storm (Bob Dylan cover)
- Midnight on the Interstate (2012’s Stars and Satellites)
- Alone (2012’s Stars and Satellites)
- Wait So Long (2010’s Palomino)
- Nothing Compares 2 U (Prince/Sinéad O’Connor cover)
- Wildflowers (Tom Petty cover)
- Codeine (2005’s Blue Sky and the Devil)
VIDEO: Trampled By Turtles “Whiskey” (Live)
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